(b. 29 May 1913 in Gary, Indiana; d. 20 March 1997 in Portage, Indiana), two-time middleweight champion of the 1940s who is best remembered for his three fights against Rocky Graziano in 1946, 1947, and 1948.
Born Anthony Florian Zaleski, Zale was one of seven children of Joseph Zaleski, a steelworker, and Catherine Mazur Zaleski, a homemaker. Zale's early years were marked by hardship. His father died in a traffic accident when Zale was only two years old. Without her husband's income, Zale's mother struggled to raise their large family. Later Zale would refer to the prize money he could use to help support his mother as one of his primary motivations to become a boxer.
The sixth child in a close-knit and religious Polish immigrant family, Zale idolized his three older brothers and followed their interest in amateur boxing as he grew up. At fifteen, while completing his education at Gary's Froebel High School, Zale entered his first fight at the Chicago Arena. Zale took a pounding and lost the match, but his brothers encouraged him to continue training. Taking a job in one of Gary's steel mills, Zale won the welterweight title in the 1930 Golden Gloves tournament in Gary, a title he defended three more times. Zale also reached the welterweight finals of the 1932 Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, which he lost. Eventually, Zale held a 87–8 record as an amateur before making his professional debut on 11 June 1934 against Eddie Allen in Chicago, which he took in four rounds.
However, Zale's debut as a professional was premature. His manager secured a heavy schedule of matches for Zale against experienced opponents that gave the young fighter little chance of honing his skills. Worse, Zale tore muscles in his side and continued to fight despite the pain. In July 1935 Zale took a break from boxing and returned to the steel mills in the hope that the strenuous work would toughen his body. The plan succeeded. Zale added muscle to his 160-pound, five-foot, eight-inch frame, but he still needed to improve his boxing style. Under new managers Art Winch and Sam Pian—who bought his contract for a paltry $200 in June 1938—Zale combined powerful and rapid punches with faster footwork and better defensive moves. Added to his capacity for absorbing almost any blow, Zale was now a formidable fighter. From his stint in the steel mills of Gary, he soon earned the nickname the "Man of Steel" in the ring.
Zale's comeback in 1939 gathered momentum after a draw and a loss in his first two fights after his return. By 29 January 1940 Zale had won a string of victories and challenged National Boxing Association middleweight champion Al Hostak in a nontitle fight. With the Chicago crowd behind the Gary native, Zale survived a knockdown in the first round and a series of blows in the fifth that allegedly broke Hostak's right hand. Zale's endurance eventually gave him the decision: he battered Hostak's midsection in the final rounds of the fight. On 19 July 1940 Zale met Hostak again—this time for the title—and sent the defending champion down three times with blows to his chest before winning on a technical knockout in the thirteenth round. Zale defended his title twice in 1941, and picked up the New York State middleweight crown by beating Georgie Abrams on 28 November that same year.
With the onset of World War II, Zale enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served as a physical education instructor at Chicago's Great Lakes Training Station and in Puerto Rico. Aside from one fight in February 1942, the defending middleweight champion did not fight for four years, although he still retained the title. In 1946 Zale returned to the ring for some tune-up matches for his first title defense since 1941 against Rocky Graziano, but a bout with pneumonia delayed the event.
Finally, on 27 September 1946 before a partisan crowd in Yankee Stadium, the heavily favored Graziano met Zale. Not only was Graziano nine years younger, but he had fought continually through the war after being declared unfit for military service. Graziano's troubled past and colorful personality also stood in sharp contrast to Zale's reputation as a devoted son and patriotic veteran. Making the odds worse for Zale, he had developed a sty in his eye just before the fight. After getting knocked down in the first round, Graziano paid Zale back in the next round and beat the defending champion until he was disoriented at the end of the fifth. Amazingly, Zale returned for the next round with renewed energy that demonstrated his staying power. Sending Graziano down with a combination of punches to the stomach and the chin, Zale won the fight by a knockout. When Zale returned home to Gary after the match, he was met at the train station by 30,000 people and given the key to the city.
A second Zale-Graziano match in Chicago on 16 July 1947 gave the champion the advantage of a hometown crowd. This time, however, it was Zale who failed to outlast his opponent. After leading Graziano for five rounds, Zale fell victim to the slugger's powerful arsenal of punches in the sixth. The referee stopped the fight on a technical knockout against Zale's wishes, and Graziano claimed the middleweight title. The event later became immortalized in the 1956 film Somebody Up There Likes Me. Zale was slated to portray himself in the movie, until his sparring rehearsals with actor Paul Newman, who played Graziano, raised fears that he might accidentally injure the star.
On 10 June 1948 Zale and Graziano met again in Newark for the final bout in their rivalry. Once again the underdog, Zale sent Graziano down twice before knocking him out for good in the third round with his classic combination of blows to Graziano's body and head. Zale retained the title for only three months, however, before losing it to French fighter Marcel Cerdan in an eleven-round fight that left Zale exhausted. The match was an anticlimax to one of the greatest boxing series in the sport's history—many said that Zale simply lost interest in fighting once his bouts with Graziano had ended—but the names Zale and Graziano would be forever linked.
After his defeat, Zale retired from boxing and made a comfortable living from his partnership in a Chicago automobile dealership. A bitter divorce in 1949—from the former Adeline Richwaski, with whom he had two daughters after their marriage on 10 April 1942—gave the dignified Zale some unwelcome attention. But the former fighter put his personal life back together with a 1970 marriage to Philomena Gianfrancisco. Zale also earned praise for his philanthropic work, particularly with Chicago-area Catholic Youth Organization activities. In 1990 Zale received the Presidential Citizen's Medal of Honor from President George H. W. Bush. In 1991 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. On 20 March 1997, after suffering from Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, and lymph node cancer, Zale died in a nursing home in Portage, Indiana, and is buried at the Calvary Cemetery there.
Best remembered for his series of fights with Graziano in the 1940s, Zale was a symbol of ethnic pride that made him a hero to his fellow Polish Americans. Active in phil-anthropic work in his retirement, Zale was also remembered at the time of his death as a man of unusual dignity outside the boxing ring.
James B. Lane recounted Zale's life and career in "City of the Century" : A History of Gary, Indiana (1978). Zale's record as a fighter was compiled in James B. Roberts et al., The Boxing Register: International Hall of Fame Official Record Book (1999). A contemporary profile of Zale, Howard Roberts, "Hard-Luck Champion," appeared in the Saturday Evening Post (5 July 1947). Posthumous tributes to Zale included obituaries in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune (both 21 Mar. 1997), and a piece by sportswriter Shirley Povich in the Washington Post (30 Mar. 1997). The July 1947 Zale-Marciano fight was the climax of the film made from Marciano's autobiography, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).